The Chrismas Archives

BANGS OF EXPECTATION

The childhood magic of anticipation comes rushing back with one of these treasure packs of promise!

There are many stories, all differing in detail, about the origins of the cracker.The following story was taken from the horses mouth, so to speak, when in 1982 I went to Tom Smith's factory in Norwich, to do some major original research into the history of the Christmas Cracker. The factory had at that time no organised archive, having lost much of their original material in the London Blitz. That which was left was somewhat haphazard, so piecing together the origins of this happy toy so redolent of Christmas was not easy.

Mr. Varnan, was an elderly executive of the company, who gave the following story. He had, he stated, got the story from an employee of Smiths in London, in 1936. That employee's father worked with Tom Smith on the development of the Cracker through the 1850's. Mr Varnan dictated the story, as you will now read it, to me, because he did not wish it to die with him. He was anxious because the archive was not cared for and getting fewer every time he looked.

Many of those artefacts donated by Mr Varnan to me to care for, are now in the Felissimo Christmas Archives Museum in Hakodate, Japan.

This whole story is guaranteed correct in every detail to Mr Varnan's dictation.

"The feeling of childish anticipation was harnessed by one Thomas Smith, manufacturer of confectionary and stationary goods, around 1847. It is a story well known to many how the young Smith family, on holiday in France, discovered the French Bon-bon - an ordinary sugared almond, but wrapped in a twist of waxed paper, at a time when English sweets were sold loose from the trays they were made in. Much more hygienic, and quite a novelty at that. So Tom brought back the idea to England, he was, after all, a confectioner, and it was logical that he should introduce this new idea from the Continent. Bonbonniers were all the rage in Paris, and made huge profits with the prettily boxed and wrapped sweets, this was just the new idea the English sweet industry needed. He marketed the bon-bons in time for Christmas, and they were an instant success.

" By the next Christmas, Tom felt that he needed something new to stay ahead of competitors who were already beginning to market their own wrapped bon-bons. Someone told him about the Chinese New Year Crackers with the fortune prediction inside. After much deliberation about the method and the production problems of doing this, he hit upon the simple idea of double wrapping the sweets, first a single roll of waxed paper, then a motto - it would be a love motto, as his sweets were finding great favour with the ladies, and they enjoyed such things - then a plain coloured outer wrapper.

" Again, he hit the jackpot, the sweets took everybody by storm., and again, in the years long before patent and copyright was enforceable, Tom's competitors were right behind him, copying his every move. Thus pressured to improve upon his bon-bon further, he then introduced a small charm or trinket, putting the wrapped sweet in a small tube, together with its motto and wrapping the whole in the outer wrapper. Again he presented his idea in time for the Christmas sales, and again they were an instant success. It could be said that this was the birth of the original cracker, and this was why it became associated with Christmas. The confection was marketed as 'Christmas Bonbonnes, - complete with a surprise.' The paper outer wrapper became more varied.

" Yet still, there was something nagging Tom's fertile mind. He realised he had something unique which was making him a great deal of money, and he felt that there had to be a greater novelty. There was more scope, he was sure, in the humble bonbon, and a wider market to claim. It is said that he mooned around the house for weeks, annoying his wife with his inattention. Fretting over the problem one day, he idly kicked at a piece of smouldering log which had fallen from the fire - it sparked and spluttered into life. THAT was the final inspiration he had been searching for! A spark of life! Instead of wrapping the bonbons he would make them so they could be pulled and, as they tore apart, they would go off with a bang.

" It took two years to perfect a safe but effective means of producing this bang. It was finally achieved after much experimentation and quite a few burnt fingers! A small strip of saltpetre, still familiar in today's crackers, was pasted to two strips of thin card. As each side was pulled, the friction created a crack and a spark. With too much, they burst into flames, too little and the crack was inaudible. So in 1860 Tom Smith's 'Bangs of Expectation' were launched.

" In those early days, the crackers were still quite small, about six inches long, and fairly plain. They were known as 'Cosaques' because the noise they made reminded people of the cracking of the Cossack's whips as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian wars. Thus the name remained for the next decade or so."

Meanwhile, other manufacturers began to look at the possibilities of this new fashion to help float their own businesses through the winter months. Sweets and cold drinks and ice cream were summer products. One such company was Caleys. Though never competitive enough to be rivals, Caleys were perhaps closest to that title, producing many fine crackers to which they proudly put their name. Neilsons made ice cream, they too saw the opportunity to expand their trade to the winter months with cracker bon-bons.

Hovells began in Holborn, another confectioner. Exactly what they produced in those early days is not precisely known. The details gleaned from the company which was to merge with Tom Smiths, was a little hazy. They claimed, however, to be the very next company after Smiths to produce crackers. They were, it is said, producing out of the back yard, as early as 1854.

There were many smaller companies who jumped onto the Cracker bandwagon, producing inferior crackers, and if the news reports of the time are to be believed, some actually caught fire when pulled! These crackers were not named, and the most you will find on such boxes is a registration number or a product name, with no company name. As the law of copyright was still very new and somewhat dubiously observed, and trade descriptions acts had not even been heard of, many of these inferior brands were passed off, at least by copied designs, as Tom Smith Crackers, so that by 1890 Smiths were beginning to retaliate. In their catalogue for 1893 appears the notice: 'Important notice to the trade; the names and designs of the principal Novelties in Tom Smith's Crackers are protected under the Trades Marks Act. Persons copying or in any way infringing same are liable to legal proceedings'.

Their catalogue in the 1880's listed some ninety odd specially designed sets with matching boxes, plus some further eighty designs of a plainer nature. These ranged from 1/8d (old money, about 8p new money) per gross for plain white or plain coloured crackers containing only the sweet & motto of the earliest cracker bonbon, to 42/- (£2.10p) for one gross, in boxes of twelve, for a magnificent set of 'Cosaques for our Christmas Party'. Elegant, fringed crackers with fine Chromolithographs picture scraps of Father Christmas. The contents were really well made paper costumes. The twelve crackers were each of a different coloured glazed paper, and fitted together like a chest of drawers; the drawers were slid open by means of a slim brass drop. The lid of each represented the exterior of a window at Christmastime, with snow on the ground; on drawing out the tray, the blind, by mechanical device, rolled up, to show a festive scene inside the window.

In the early Victorian times, as in Georgian before, the merriest parties were held after Christmas, on Twelfth Night, the last day of the season. Twelfth Night parties were usually Masques, when people dressed up in fancy costumes. Crackers were part of this gaiety, and the hats in the crackers were used as part of the fancy dress. Later, Twelfth Night was officially banned as being too rowdy, at the wish of Queen Victoria, but unofficially, the parties and fancy dress masques continued.

Other crackers in those early catalogues included 'Shakespearean Crackers' with hats from the Bard's plays and quotations instead of mottos; 'Aesthetic Crackers', "a 'high art' cosaque inspired by Oscar Wilde". The hey day of the themed cracker was certainly the period between 1880, when it be began, and 1920.

The ingenuity and craftsmanship which went into the production of the themed cracker during that time is without parallel. There were specially shaped containers, such as a cottage, for a set entitled, 'Love in a Cottage'; a Trunk containing 'Mrs Brown's Luggage', and a perfect model of the then, recently demolished Temple Bar.

There were stand-up model landscapes, which popped up on the lid to make a fine centrepiece for a table; and then there were the games - not plastic trinkets, but real games! Whereas many crackers could, and id contain the separate parts of games, such as musical toys to make up an orchestra, with real music supplied so that tunes could be played, or charade crackers with all the 'props' required for a game, still many of the novel ideas could not be contained within the confines of a small cardboard tube. So the box itself either became part of a game, or held contents apart from the crackers.

'Stereoscopic Crackers' for example, were released in These contained tiny Kaleidoscopes and other optical toys and trinkets, while the box itself became a proper stereoscope, with glasses which took the standard slides of the day.

Around the turn of the century held quite ordinary crackers, except that just one contained a prize ticket which entitled the lucky holder to the Zillograph game which was enclosed in the box. (This was a game of illusion with faces which changed expression). Other similar types with the winning ticket idea included such prize games as Ludo, Snakes & Ladders, etc. 'Bric-a-Brac' Crackers were filled with miniature 'objet de Vertue'.

There were sophisticated crackers for lovers of Bridge, Kino and Consequences, there were optical illusions, squeaking crackers, and firework crackers. Topical events such as Indian Crackers for the 'Empire', 'Klondyke Gold Rush' crackers, 'Treasure from Luxor' crackers were released during the Egyptian digs which found the Tutankhamen tomb.

The 1920's began the popular craze for Crossword Puzzles, and true to its topical form, a cracker was released in time for Christmas 1925, which contained crossword puzzles

Crackers were produced for other topical occasions, such as the 1900 Paris exhibition, and Prince Edward (Prince of Wales) World Tour in 1927. One of the nicest stories told by the staff is that of the gentleman who send a diamond ring and a ten-shilling note, with a letter requesting that a special cracker be made with the ring inside, as a proposal to his ladylove. Sadly, the gentleman did not remember to include his address! Maybe the engagement never happened, because he did not get back in touch with Smiths, and the ring, together with the money and the letter are still kept by Smiths in their archives.

Later crackers appealed to people from all walks of life - including the armed forces. 'The Royal Flying Corps' 'Naval Crackers' (in tasteful blue crepe!) 'Regular Volunteers Military Crackers,' 'Crackers for Married Folk', 'Crackers for Batchelors', 'Smart Set Society Crackers', which goes to prove the popularity of crackers - no-one felt too staid, too proper or too sophisticated for a cracker at their dinner party.

The designs of Tom Smith alone were into many thousands by the time the factory was hit by the Blitz 1941, in the City of London, and all but wiped out their entire archive.

OTHER COMPANIES

About the time that the young Tom Smith embarqued upon his 'Bangs of Expectation', a German company, Schauer, brought out their 'Silvesters'. These were very similar to the cracker as we know it, but tended to be longer and slimmer. They were a safer, indoor version of the traditional fireworks which were lit for New Year, called by the Germans, St. Silvesters Eve, hence the name.

Small Crackers, designed as tree decorations, were made in Europe, and place on the branches of the tree year after year, never suffering the indignity of being pulled apart! They were made from satins and silks. Some contained bottles of perfume, jewellery and lace handkerchiefs.

College Crackers were comparatively recent compared with Smith, Caley and Hovells. They began in a mews garage in Royal College Street Camden Town, in 1950. Filling a gap when the other companies had fallen from the Blitz. Sadly they kept no archives, and their early crackers were very much the 'utility' children's pillowcase fillers of the post-war years. They bought out Badgers Harlequin Crackers, a name from the 1930's, which company were particularly popular for their boxes of miniature crackers, and this name, together with that of 'Rainbow', another postwar company, still appears on the College Boxes today. From their utilitarian beginnings they expanded into much finer lines, on commission to other retailers.

Among other company names which produced old crackers are: Mansells, Mason & Church and Fortnum & Mason - who created some frothy concoctions, especially in the 1930-1950's, and other retailers followed.

THE EVOLUTION OF CRACKER DESIGN

  • 1847 Sugar Almond and motto in paper twist ends
  • 1850 Toys and jewels substituted for almond
  • 1860 Orthodox shaped established and detonator introduced
  • 1880 Coloured printed crackers and box tops to match
  • 1890 Wrappers made of plain coloured crepe paper
  • 1900 Floral decorated crackers
  • 1910 Table centrepieces decorated with crackers
  • 1912 Crepe paper wrappers with printed design
  • 1933 Printed foil wrappers with individual designs
  • 1934 The last word in Crackers - Two alternating detonators - Bang up to date!
  • 1939-1945 These years and beyond tended to be utility years, when 'cheap and cheerful' was the the order of the day. Paper was scarce, and these plain crackers cost more comparatively than their pre-war fine cousins.
  • 1980's Saw a revival of the interest in fancy themed crackers, and several licences were taken out by cracker companies all over Britain.
  • By the 1990's, you could get crackers to suit almost any taste, from Gardening to Wildlife, and Bad Taste to Nativity. The popular characters such as Wallace & Grommit, and older ones such as Paddington Bear, cartoon characters were all available, and with the end of the decade, crackers were at last beginning to make headway in places like America and Japan, where there was an importation problem due to the 'explosive' character of the snaps!

Sadly, , the great Tom Smiths machinery rumbled to a final hat in July 1998, bought out by yet another multi-national company who kept the august name of Tom Smith Crackers, but at the time of writing this, the news is so new noone knows what the fate of the English cracker will be. The expertise of generations of cracker makers may now be lost to manufactury in the Far East.

Only the humbler College Crackers remains of the old guard now, most of the others being amalgamated into Smiths over the years.

FURTHER INFORMATION

By the turn of the century, Smiths factory was producing some 13,000,000 crackers annually, of which were bought for British tables, the rest going to India aND other parts of the Empire. Nearly everything was made by hand, including the hand ground litho stones onto which the litho artists would engrave their designs. Machines made the boxes, and assembled the papers for the crackers, but adept young girls would roll, glue and tie off crackers by hand, having put the various novelties etc into them. These novelties were themselves handmade good in those earlier crackers, it was only a post war mass market which lost the quality. There were glass pendants and brooches, bracelets and other jewellery from Bohemia, delicate paper fans from the orient, ivory elephants and jade buddhas from India, handmade wooden toys from Norway, musical toys from France & Germany, and novelties from many other places such as America, Turkey and Africa. British goods were electro-plated and solid silver charms, beautifully embroidered aprons, handkerchiefs and dolls clothes, and one set called 'Star Cosaques' from the 1860's held bottles of fine French perfume.

Many of the British companies were bought up by Smiths by the time they had opened their new postwar factory in Norwich in October 1963, where their 40,000,000 + per year output takes upwards of 180,000 sq.ft. of storage space alone. It is said that one years product, laid end to end would take an aircraft 6.12 minutes at mac.1 763 miles to go from end to end!

The post war designs were not as elaborate as the earlier ones. Gone is 'Dolly's Christmas Wardrobe', complete with a wax doll and a complete set of clothing. In the late 1980's there was a distinct trend back to the better ranges of old, with sophisticated His 'n' hers gifts, and themed and licenced sets, such as Wades Animates, and Russell Grants Astrological Crackers, and the range has improved in the 1990's. I wonder what the next century will bring a winning prize ticket for a trip to the stars perhaps?